First adventures with woad

Well, I’ve finally bitten the bullet.

I’ve read dire warnings about the importance of being patient with woad harvesting, because:

  • you need a lot of leaves to get a decent amount of dye, and
  • the chemicals that provide the blue dye take time to develop in the plant.

I only have a few plants, and they don’t look very big. However, on the whole people who write about natural dyes are working in larger quantities than I am. They need enough yarn to knit a jumper, or the fabric to make a tablecloth. I’m working with light weight scarves that weigh 7-8g each.

I decided this week that I needed to make a start and see what happened. I used the vinegar method, which tends to extract less pigment, but it is quicker, so I thought it would be a good guide as to how things were going. After all, I didn’t even know how much a woad leaf weighed, so I didn’t know how much I needed.

Woad is a member of the cabbage family, so I wasn’t surprised that as I chopped it up there was a smell of overcooked cabbage. It got quite strong, so I was pleased to mask that smell by covering the chopped leaves with a mixture of cold water and white vinegar. I kneaded it for 5 minutes, strained off the liquid, and repeated the process. That produced a bright green liquid, which I reckoned would be enough for 5 scarves.

I thought I would play safe, in case it is too early in the season to get a lot of colour. I put in two white scarves, one of a pale mustard that comes from buddleia, and one that had been dyed a golden orange with dahlias. I tied them all up in various ways to make patterns.

The scarves soaked in the dye bath for about an hour, and then oxidised on the washing line until they were dry. I left two more scarves in the dye bath overnight, to soak up any remaining colour.

I’m pleased with the result, but I found that this dye doesn’t penetrate the folds quite as much as others I have used, so I have rather more undyed fabric than I expected. With the gold scarves that I’d previously dyed with dahlia and buddleia, I was expecting the result to be green. However, because of the lack of penetration there is rather more gold left than I had bargained for. I might have another go at those two…

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Solar dyeing again

Well, I bet some of you out there are ahead of me here.

About three weeks ago, I started off some solar dyeing. A couple of days later, I noticed that one of the marigold jars was a different colour from the others.

Now all the jars are the same colour. You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?

I still think it is odd that the colour developed at different speeds.

Here is the evidence:



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Eco printing

Eco printing is a process of wrapping dyestuff in damp mordanted fabric, wrapping it up, and either leaving it to “cure” in a warm dry place, or steaming it to extract and fix the colour.

Last year’s attempts gave mixed results. I started late in the summer, and went for storing my carefully wrapped cling film parcels in the shed that I’m using for a drying house. I’ve read that the parcels need to be left for at least a week, so to avoid the temptation to peep I made my parcels just before a holiday.

The result was not what I expected. The colours had merged and were not recognisable. Perhaps I left it too long. Perhaps I added too many pieces of rusty metal, or helped it along the way with too much vinegar.

Anyway, the result is a lovely muted piece of fabric, shown here. It just doesn’t have the fuchsia colours that went into it.

For my second attempt, I used more flowers, not so many leaves, and no metal. Because it was autumn by then, I decided the shed might not be warm enough to get a result. So I got the steamer out. This gave a nice result, but it was too pale. I think it was a combination of:

  • Not using enough flowers. It was a bit late for fuchias.
  • As the season goes on, the structure of flowers changes. They sometimes become tougher in texture, and the pigments often don’t give as much colour.

So here goes with this year’s experiments. I’m trying three combinations:

  • Marigold heads, chopped off at the bottom of the petals, arranged as they fell.
  • Dahlia leaves.
  • Fuchsia and geranium flowers.

I think it is interesting how much thicker the roll containing marigold heads is. They are all sitting in a nice solar heated shed for a couple of weeks. Time will tell…


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A solar surprise

Well, everyone says that the problem with natural dyes is that you cannot repeat colours exactly. With any dyeing process, there is scope for variation due to slight differences in quantities, moisture content etc.

With natural dye stuff there will also be variations in the amount of dye chemicals in the plant because of growing conditions, time of year, and things like that.

I know I said I was going to forget about my solar dyeing for a few weeks, but I glanced in that direction when I was passing, and noticed one of the jars was pink.

How can that be then? I have 4 jars containing flowers that were picked and processed at the same time in the same way.

The plants are a single variety, bought from a respectable supplier as plugs. They were nurtured in the kitchen, and greenhouse before being planted out.

Since the danger of frosts passed, they have been living side by side in the same beds with the same soil conditions and climate. Since I assembled them, the jars have been sitting side by side in the same place.

It will be interesting to see how this one progresses. Will it stay pink? Will the others catch up? Will the silk be anything like this colour when it is eventually washed out and dried?

I wonder if the pink jar has slightly more flowers, which has just pushed it over some boundary?

One thing is for sure. It is clearly dangerous to have fixed plans for the next stage of these scarves.

Left to right: The pink marigold jar, then one of the others which is golden, as I expected it to be.

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Solar dyeing

Where is this year going? I have been so busy with my editing work that I haven’t had as much time as I would like for getting on in the studio.

One thing I keep reading about on the net is solar dyeing. It mainly seems to go on in the US. You don’t hear much about it in East Yorkshire.

I’m just back from holiday, so if I don’t make a start now, in mid July, I can’t expect to get results from a process that takes several weeks of warmth.

What have a I got to lose? A few home grown flowers and a bit of time. If not much colour comes out, I can use it as a base for something else.

To get things going fast, I picked up some unmordanted silk and put it with some dried rhubarb leaves. Most of us know that rhubarb leaves are poisonous, but not so many know that the relevant chemical is a mordant, which helps colour stick to fibres.

In general, fibres need to move around in a dye bath, or you will get uneven colour. Solar dyeing happens in a glass jar, so movement doesn’t seem likely. In an attempt to make blotches look like an artistic pattern, I ran a few gathering threads at random places and drew them up to give a bit of underlying texture. I’m hoping for a similar effect to tie dying, but with more flexibility for it to move round the jar when I shake it.

As the leaves were dry, I put about double the weight of the scarf I was using into the jar, and topped it up with cold water. I left it in a sunny place, on gravel in case of spillages, & went away for a couple of days. People I told about my experiment it to said “You’ll be lucky in this weather.”

However, by the time I got back there was a bit of colour in the jar. It even looks the right colour for rhubarb.

Spurred on by this, I’ve dug out a few more jars for phase 2 of the experiment.

This time, I’ve mordanted four scarves with alum, and put them one to a jar with some fresh marigolds. A scarf weighs 7 or 8g, and I’ve put 20g to 30g of flowers in each one. I’m expecting a golden colour, which should be a useful background for all sorts of designs. I think my quantity of flowers is on the generous side, but I suspect the colour from this process will be paler than in the more usual boiling process.

Now I’m going to forget all about it for a few weeks.

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An experiment with flour paste

This experiment is about a very simple concept. If you cover a surface with something impenetrable, like a stencil, and paint over the top, the paint doesn’t get to the whole surface, causing a pattern to form.

In this case, the surface is a silk scarf, and the something impenetrable is flour and water paste.

Stage 1

Although this technique would work on a nice, plain white scarf, that wasn’t a very appealing idea. After preparing the fabric with a mordant, I splodged two colours of dye over the scarves, allowing them to mix where the colours touched to form shades of purple. I used a different brush for each dye, so that the colours didn’t merge too much, and there was a variety of marks.

Stage 2

After leaving the scarves to dry overnight, I mixed up some flour and water paste for the really messy part. I spread the paste on with a spatula, and made patterns using a chunky plastic comb. I worked in stages, because it is easier to mix the paste using about 125g of flour in each batch.

Stage 3

For those with patience, this is the easy bit. The paste needs to dry thoroughly to form a proper barrier. By the following morning it looked dry, but there were some places where the paste was a bit darker, so it was obviously still damp in places.

I had put the paste on when I knew I didn’t have time to work on this project for several days, in case I was tempted to move on too soon. That was a good move. By the time I was ready, the scarves had curled the pvc table cloth I was working on. Where the paste had been scraped over the edge of the scarf, it had risen away from the base as it dried.

Stage 4

The next stage is to mix up some dye in a different colour, and paint it all over the paste. The dye takes in the pattern drawn in the paste, and in the cracks formed in the paste as it dried.

I was wondering whether the dye would reach through to the fabric. I was a bit concerned that I might not have scraped all the way through the paste, so a thin layer might prevent any pattern forming. When I turned the dried scarf over, I was reassured.

Stage 5

The dried paste is removed from the fabric by flaking it off. I was surprised quite how  messy this was.

Although some came off in big chunks, a lot of powder was created, and the more persistent sections needed to be soaked off. I’m wondering whether an old fashioned mangle would speed up this part of the process.

Stage 6

The final stage of most dyeing processes is to give it all a good rinse, and hang it up to dry.

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Experiments with cyanotype

The idea of cyanotype is very simple.

First soak the fabric in light sensitive chemicals, then dry it in a dark place. If you arrange shapes on the resulting fabric and expose it to daylight, the chemicals react and darken the fabric to a slate grey. When you rinse it out, the chemicals come out of the parts that have been covered, leaving a white shape, while the parts of the have fabric that have  been exposed to the light turn a lovely blue.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it turns out that there are two key things:

  1. It is important to apply the solutions evenly. Sometimes I managed a lovely mottled effect. Sometimes there were unpleasant white gashes in the pattern.
  2. The angle of the light is important. Where the light came from above the shape, it is nice and clear. If it comes from the side, you get a blur.

I tried two theories for my first experiments:

cyanotype 1

  • First, I used paper snowflakes. I cut out thin drawing paper, as you would to decorate a window at Christmas.

This worked nicely, but I didn’t get enough of the solution on the fabric to get enough colour developing. The pattern came out nicely in some parts, but in other places the blue was just too pale to make the pattern stand out. The big thing that stopped this experimenty from being useable was a horrible tide mark at one end. Bother.

  • The other idea was to use wooden shapes from a stationery shop.

cyanotype 2The simpler shapes of leaves worked best. Unfortunately, on this piece of fabric I had not covered the whole of the fabric, and you could see the gaps between the brush strokes.

The shapes were clear and well defined, but the overall fabric was not consistent enough to be useable.

The other shape I tried was a reindeer. I need to try this again to work out the nature of the problem. cyanotype 3Either the shape is too intricate, or the angle of the light was wrong. I did these experiments in winter, so I used a UV bulb in a lamp. Some of the shapes are unrecognisable fuzzy blobs, but some are quite nice.

This is an idea that has some scope, but it needs some refinement.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, as they say.

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